Jaffna, February 1 (The New Indian Express): The Sri Lankan think tank Pathfinder Foundation (PFF) has called for the immediate setting up of a Marine Science Research Station on Kachchativu island in the Palk Strait to strengthen Sri Lanka’s case for sovereignty over the island which is disputed by Tamil Nadu politicians and fishermen.
“From time to time, there have been demands by interest groups in Tamil Nadu for retrieving the island, which was allegedly ceded to Sri Lanka following the agreement between the two countries in June 1974.Such demands have become a common feature, particularly when Tamil Nadu fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters are apprehended by the Sri Lankan authorities,” the PFF said.
“Reports on flag hoisting may represent a mischievous attempt intended to disturb the prevailing friendly relations between the two countries, as questions of sovereignty over Kachchativu were discussed and amicably resolved some 40 years ago, after Sri Lanka conclusively established that its sovereignty over the island went back to the colonial period,” it said.
Suggesting a way to meet these threats and also to safeguard the marine environment in the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar areas, the PFF has asked the Sri Lankan government to get the National Aquatic Resources Agency (NARA) and the Department of Fisheries to come up with a plan to set up a Marine Science Research Center on Kachchativu.
“Living quarters, communication facilities and research equipment will be needed to make the research station functional. Regular exchange of personnel should be organized as well as transport and emergency services,” it suggested.
“If resources are difficult in the short term, support of the private sector may be sought to commence the project,” it added.
Indian fishermen have no case
Reiterating Sri Lanka’s case vis-à-vis Kachchativu PFF said that Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over Kachchativu was formally and legally recognized at the highest political level in both countries after the Agreement was signed by Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in June 1974 and ratified by the respective Parliaments.
“So clearly and permanently were the rights of the two countries established and regulated by the Agreement, that when questions were recently raised regarding ownership of the island, the then Attorney-General of India Mukul Rohatgi, representing the Indian Central government reportedly expressed the opinion to a Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice of India R.M. Lodha on 26 August 2014 that: If India wants Katchatheevu back, it will have to go to war to get it back,” PFF recalled.
However, from time to time, some commentators have mischievously claimed that the Agreement grants to Indian fishermen the right to fish in and around Kachchativu, and that there has been interference with the exercise of that right, PFF noted.
Some Indian commentators point out that Article 5 of the 1974 Agreement grants Indian fishermen and pilgrims access to visit Kachchativu as hitherto, and will not be required by Sri Lanka to obtain travel documents or visa for these purposes.
But the phrase “as hitherto” refers to visits for drying fishing nets or for religious observances. It does not refer to fishing or other activities, which are, by Article 4 of the agreement, fully subject to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and exclusive jurisdiction.
“Paragraph 1 of the Exchange of Letters between the two countries in 1976 clearly prohibits fishing in the Indian waters by Sri Lankans and Sri Lankan waters by Indians by stating that fishing vessels and fishermen of India shall not engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the EEZ of Sri Lanka nor shall the fishing vessels and fishermen of Sri Lanka engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the EEZ of India, without the express permission of Sri Lanka of India, as the case may be,” the PFF pointed out.
There is no scope for access even for drying nets and resting because with the introduction of the steel hulled mechanized trawlers by Tamil Nadu fishing syndicates, man-made fiberfishing nets and the gradual disappearance of artisan fishing methods, the need for drying fishing nets on the island has become a long forgotten practice.
One way to underscore Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and prevent the degrading of the marine environment by the poaching Tamil Nadu trawlers is to establish a marine science research station in Kachchativu, which is said to be home to unusual varieties of marine flora and fauna, as the area surrounding the island has taken the brunt of poaching, the PFF said.
(The featured picture at the top shows a scene in the St.Anthony’s festival on Kachchativu which attracts Catholics from both Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu)